Hundreds of San Antonio’s police officers and firefighters dressed in blue and purple shirts packed City Council Chambers Thursday morning in anticipation of the vote on the 2015 proposed budget, set to go into effect on Oct. 1
The $2.4 billion budget included a placeholder for cuts in health care benefits for both the police and firefighter unions. As individuals on both sides of the issue rose to address Councils from the dais, a series of deafening standing ovations and boos and hisses followed.
The proposed cuts total $8.5 million, a tiny piece of the $2.4 billion budget, but the benefits cuts represent the most contentious issue on City Council’s plate at the moment as the Sept. 30 expiration of the current contracts with police and firefighters approaches and negotiations remain stalled.
San Antonio Police Officers Association (SAPOA) President Mike Helle delivered a passionate yet measured speech to City Council during the Citizens to be Heard session, which sparked standing ovations for Mayor Ivy Taylor for what he called, “hitting the reset button … and (moving) the agenda at the negotiating table from one of threats and intimidation to one of trust and appreciation.”
The placeholder in the approved budget would allocate a compromise sum of $10,000 a year to cover health care costs for each uniformed police officer and firefighter, less than the estimated $14,868 costs this year, but substantially more than the $7,200 the City spends on health care benefits for its civilian employees.
Negotiators for the City and SAPOA are set to meet Sept. 23 in the B Session room in the Municipal Building, the first such session since talks broke down in June. Firefighters have yet to come to the table, despite a series of invitations from the City to begin collective bargaining. Union reps now say they will be ready to begin talks next month, but no dates have been set.
“We know we have a finite amount of tax dollars and we will provide the taxpayers with the best value for their investment in its officers,” Helle said. “The bargaining process has worked for 38 years – despite heated rhetoric we are confident that through your leadership, Mayor, everything will be resolved in time.”
The budget, which was approved unanimously by Council, goes into effect on Oct. 1, but any changes in health care benefits would start on Jan. 1, so there is still time to reach a deal and avert the threat of arbitrary cuts and probable litigation. Uniform police and firefighters currently do not pay any insurance premiums, standard co-pays or have to worry about out-of-pockets costs typical of most plans. The City staff and an independent task force have concluded that such a rich benefits package is no longer sustainable, with costs rising as much as 20% a year.
Public safety costs have been capped by the council at the current 66.5% of the general budget. Without any cuts, it was estimated that public safety costs would eat up 100% of the budget by 2030.
“There can’t be an expectation of maintenance of the status quo, so I hope folks will be open-minded as far as where there is room for movement (reallocation),” Taylor said. “My understanding is that there is acknowledgment from many folks in the ranks that is a realistic expectation … (the $10,000 allocation) gives us benchmark of the range that we want to be in.”
San Antonio Firefighters Association President Chris Steele’s speech to the City was much more animated and defensive of keeping benefits and health care structured exactly as they are now.
“I’m tired of hearing – and I think everybody else is tired of hearing, ‘We love firefighters, we support you, you do a great job,’” Steele said, turning away from the City Council dais and podium with a mobile microphone. “Actions speak louder than words … we are not feeling the love.
“I have a signed contract, a signed agreement that we agreed to everything that’s in that’s package. But then when she (City Manager Sheryl Sculley) has a problem with that package, she goes to the public – she berates us in the public. How would anybody feel about that (about) a boss like that? Firefighters, police officers and city employees deserve more respect than that.”
Steele reiterated claims not supported by the record that Sculley had called the unions and their membership greedy and unreasonable. In fact, she’s stayed cool, at least publicly, in the face of repeated personal attacks from both unions, and stuck to her basic premise that the City can no longer afford to pay the richest benefits packages earned by any public safety unions in Texas. Her position has been backed by former Mayor Julián Castro, Mayor Taylor, and City Councils under both mayors, yet Sculley remains the target.
Steele said the union is still collecting data and has never started negotiations before October, suggesting that the union will be sitting down with the City in October.
“The lead that (Helle) establishes and to the extent that we’re able to have fruitful negotiations will impact what ends up happening with the fire union since they haven’t come forward and agreed to negotiate at this point,” Taylor said.
Mayor Taylor and City Council will have the flexibility to settle on a figure other than $10,000 per uniform employee if negotiators reach agreement on a proposed contract, although allocating more than that sum would require cuts to other programs, such as parks, libraries or other services.
“Public safety as a percent of the general fund has grown 10% over the past nine years,” Sculley told reporters after the Council meeting. “It’s crowding out some of the other services, so over the past four years I’ve had to recommend reductions in parks maintenance, reductions in library hours … reductions in all the other things that fit into that other 1/3 of the budget.”
The 2014 budget uses additional revenue from city growth to increase funding for street maintenance to the tune of $15 million, nearly $7 million for drainage projects, and other increases for the public library system, Animal Care Services, parks, and comprehensive transportation planning.
“What the chambers and the community has said is we want more street maintenance, we want more sidewalk improvements, we don’t want our parks cut,” Sculley said, adding that 120 acres of voter-approved park projects are coming on-line that need resources.
She also said the City’s 2014 Community Survey reflects the community’s priorities quite clearly.
“The community wants that balance – to have those services as well as our core service of public safety,” she said.
That survey found that 70% of citizens said police and firefighters should “contribute to the cost of health care like civilian employees.” A separate survey conducted in March 2014 by the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce mirrored the City’s public opinion poll.
Whether changes to benefit packages will be grandfathered or phased in for new hires are options that may be discussed on Sept. 23, Taylor said.
“(City Council) doesn’t care what numbers are placed in the budget, they want us to work it out. They know there is some flexibility in there,” Helle said after the meeting. “We look forward to getting back to the table … we’ll get a deal done. We both have issues that we’d like to come to the table on and we both have to come half way, but that’s part of the process.”
*Featured/top image: Police and fire union members gather in City Council chambers during the 2015 budget vote. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
See all stories related to the current contract negotiations here.